Hard work pays off for Hoffman

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's no explanation for how life works out like this. Some folks search and search for that "right" person to be with, but never find what they really want.

Other people go out to play basketball one day when they're teenagers … and nearly a decade later, they're still together, married with three dogs, a house, and the same goals and dreams.

If Indiana's Ebony Hoffman wins one more game this season, she will have a WNBA championship and could be the Finals MVP. But if she never won another game in her career, she'd still consider herself one of life's really lucky people.

From growing up in a supportive, loving family to having a husband who has devoted himself to helping her career, Hoffman has never felt alone in a pursuit that sometimes can be quite lonely.

"I understand the trials and tribulations people go through," Hoffman said of the more difficult parts of being a professional athlete. "It's hard being in a city you're not familiar with, on your own, the ups and downs of the game, the pressure situations.

"You have to perform in whatever time you're given. And if you're a bench player, you have to come in with cold legs and give an energy boost, score, make sure you pick it up in some way. With no one to go home to, you cry by yourself if you have a bad day. Some people psyche themselves out; they tell themselves they can't do it, because you are your worst enemy most of the time."

Hoffman can indeed be that for herself … but she always has someone there who never stops being confident in her: husband Ronald Cass. He's a lifelong hoops junkie who works out with her all the time.

"None of this, to me, is a miracle," Cass said of Hoffman's surge during the WNBA playoffs. "We've put in the work. I always tell her, 'If you can do it against me, you can do it against anybody you face.' It's all confidence with Ebony."

The two, who married in 2007, have been together since meeting shortly after Hoffman finished at Narbonne High in Harbor City, Calif., in 2000. Cass, a year older, was a good player in his own right, but he quickly saw that Hoffman had a chance to be an elite performer in the women's game.

"We met on a basketball court," Hoffman said. "Some friends of mine thought we'd make a great couple, since we both loved basketball. It's just been amazing. He's taught me pretty much everything about my game -- how to expand it, how to be better, to not be the 'typical' post player. I want to be unguardable, and he saw that aspect in me.

"He's been my motivation. He's spent the extra hours in here in the gym with me in the morning before he has to go to work. Then he comes back after work. We've been putting in the sweat together."

Hoffman grew up in the greater Los Angeles area, the youngest of Floyd and Marsha Hoffman's three children. Her sister, Erika, is 12 years older and played volleyball growing up. Her brother, Elliot, is six years older and provided Ebony her first hoops inspiration.

"He would be out there with his friends and say, 'You can't play unless you're good, especially on my team,'" Hoffman said. "It fueled my fire to be on my brother's team, because he was king of the block then."

Her father had played baseball growing up, so Ebony genetically got some athletic talent. But her mother had dreams of Ebony being a concert pianist. Ebony started playing the piano when she was in kindergarten, and she kept it up for six years.

"Until my mom saw I no longer was interested," Hoffman said with a chuckle, "and stopped making me go."

That was because basketball was what Hoffman really wanted to do. She began in fourth grade playing in AAU for James Anderson, who would also be her coach at Narbonne. There, she was teammates with future WNBA players Loree Moore and Lisa Willis.

In the summer after she graduated, Hoffman met Cass. They dated all through Hoffman's college career at Southern Cal, where the one thing that kept her from getting as much national notice as she deserved was the fact that the team did not make the NCAA tournament during her career. It was a down period for a once-storied program, but it didn't stop Hoffman from being picked No. 9 overall by Indiana in a talented draft class of 2004.

Hoffman and Cass, both Southern California natives, relocated to the Midwest.

"It's totally different, in terms of things to do, the weather, not having your friends from home to hang around with," Hoffman said. Then she added with a laugh, "That's why we have three dogs -- we just started wracking up the pets because at first, we didn't have any friends here."

And Hoffman had to adapt to playing the game at the pro level. She had somewhat of a breakthrough in her third season, 2006, when she started all but one game for the Fever. The next year, though, her role was a bit more limited. But going into 2008, Cass was convinced Hoffman could be the most improved player in the league. And, indeed, she won that award with career-best averages of 10.4 points and 7.8 rebounds.

"We had a goal for her to do that," Cass said. "She was the first one in the gym, and the last one to leave. I guaranteed her if she put in the work, she could get that honor."

This past season, Hoffman dealt with tendinitis problems, and she doesn't plan on going overseas to play until January to give herself some rest. Still, she has started every game in 2009 for Indiana, averaging 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in the regular season and 12.3 and 4.8 in the Fever's eight playoff games thus far. Her 27 points in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was a career high.

Hoffman is also one of the more outgoing players for the Fever, usually the one who's motivating and teasing her teammates. Asked for her favorite Hoffman story that she could actually tell, Katie Douglas said, "Oh, give me a second to think. I've got so many."

Then Douglas, who jokes that her nickname for Hoffman is "Cuckoo Bird," recalled a flight from earlier this season when some of the other Fever players got Indiana's Shay Murphy, also a USC grad, to play a trick on Hoffman.

"Ebony likes to harass people on the plane because she's not a big sleeper during flights," Douglas said. "So this time, some of us told Shay to go get the flight attendant to say something funny about Ebony."

Soon, over the plane's loud speaker came this announcement, "Folks, welcome on today's flight, Ebony Hoffman, world champion of mud wrestling!"

Douglas said, "And the whole plane is looking around, and she's saying, 'Ebony Hoffman, please raise your hand!' It takes a lot to get Ebony embarrassed, but that did."

Cass would get a kick out of that, too, because he and Hoffman are constantly joking with each other. But they both say they have found the right balance between competing against each other in basketball (or anything else) and being in a relationship.

He attributes it to the fact that from the time they met, they just clicked.

"She is everything to me," he said. "We can talk about anything, we're always laughing. I just have a good time with her more than with anybody. I wouldn't trade it for the world. We just work well together. She's my best friend."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.